Mar 042015

As I travel to the UAE frequently these days, it is obviously of interest to me when I read about an American facing a felony charge in that country for a Facebook post he made in the US.

It is true that the UAE is not a democratic country. There are no political freedoms there, and opposition activists are sometimes incarcerated. However, the country is by no means a police state. On the contrary, they are proud to have found ways to reconcile conservative Muslim traditions with a modern, fairly tolerant, open 21st century society. As a foreigner, unless you are in the habit of passing bad cheques or farting in elevators, you really have to go out of your way to offend before UAE authorities decide to throw the book at you.

This American may have done exactly that, by posting deeply offensive remarks, directly insulting his UAE employer and management. Such speech may be protected under the US constitution (or not; not even the First Amendment protects false accusations) but the UAE is not the US. The fact that he made the offensive Facebook posts while in the US is an interesting twist, but I don’t think it is sufficient to get the charges dropped.

Still, now that the case has attracted international attention, my suspicion is that he will not receive a jail sentence: his apology will be accepted and he will simply be deported from the country. (His frozen wages, which prompted his outburst in the first place, will probably remain frozen, however.)

 Posted by at 10:05 am
Mar 042015

Benjamin Netanyahu warned the United States, in his unusually (and rather inappropriately) partisan address to Congress, that Iran’s nuclear ambitions represent an existential threat to Israel.

How many times do you cry wolf before others stop taking you seriously?

Back in 1993 (!), Netanyahu told the world that Iran would develop a nuke by 1999. That, of course, was 16 years ago.

Just to be clear, I have no illusions nor delusions about the Iranian regime. It is a dangerous regime that supports unsavory causes, not to mention genuine terrorists, around the world. And they certainly threatened Israel in the past.

However, I do not believe that the Iranian regime is planning to nuke Israel. As a matter of fact, I suspect that they are aiming to remain a “threshold” nuclear power for the foreseeable future: that is, develop the technological foundations so that they are capable of producing nuclear weapons on short notice, use their nuclear program as a bargaining chip, but avoid building actual weapons.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s political stunt is probably causing more damage to Israel than anything the ayatollahs could dream up. By playing a divisive political game in Washington, Netanyahu risks losing the one thing Israel cannot afford to lose under any circumstances: bipartisan support in Washington. For this reason, it seems to me that Benjamin Netanyahu represents a greater existential threat to Israel than any Iranian nuke.

 Posted by at 9:28 am
Mar 042015

Five days ago, I was sitting on an Emirates Airlines flight from Dubai to Budapest.

Our flight took an unusual route. Normally (well, at least within my limited experience) such flights take a route north of Iraq, flying over Iranian airspace towards Turkey. Not this time: We flew across the Saudi desert instead, then turned north over the Sinai peninsula before entering Turkish airspace and turning northwest again. I was wondering about that kink in our trajectory: was it weather or perhaps some airspace over the Mediterranean was closed for military reasons?

As a service to business class customers, Emirates provides a limo service to the destination of your choice on arrival. I was wondering how I would find the limo pick-up location, but it was easier than I thought: the chauffeur was waiting for me at the customs exit, holding up a sign bearing my name. During the journey to my hotel, he told me about his son who wishes to become a particle physicist at CERN. So for a while, we were discussing the Higgs boson and teraelectronvolts, instead of more customary topics, like Hungarian politics.

I rented a car in Budapest, for my mother and I to take a short trip to southern Hungary, to visit my mother-in-law. As we had the car for a whole weekend, on Sunday we decided to take another small trip, this time to the north of Budapest, the small but historical city of Visegrád.

I used to live in Visegrád, from 1974 to 1977, mostly in this building:

At the time, this building served as a resort owned by the Hungarian Industrial Association. As a member of a crafts artisan cooperative, my mother was entitled to vacation in this place, which we did in the spring of 1974. This is how she came to meet my stepfather who at the time was the manager of this facility. To make a long story short, we lived in the manager’s apartment for several years, while my parents built a new house in the same town. I have fond memories of this place.

Today, it serves as a home for the elderly. It seems to be well taken care of. Much to my surprise, one of its terraces appears to have been converted into a chicken coop, complete with a rather loud rooster:

Other than these two excursions and a brief visit to a 91-year old friend who recently had a serious health crisis, I spent most of my time at my parents’ place, a small apartment on the Buda side, nearly filled by a giant dog and his favorite toy:

My parents are very fond of this animal. He is nice, but I remain committed to cats. They are quieter, smell nicer, and require a whole lot less maintenance.

And all too soon, I was on another airplane, flying “business class” on British Airways to London. I had to put “business class” in quotation marks, as there was ridiculously little legroom on this middle-aged A320:

At least, the middle seats were converted into an extra tray instead.

And the flight left Budapest nearly an hour late. The reason? The air crew arrived in Budapest late the previous night, and they had to have their mandatory rest. This presented a potentially serious problem for me: the possibility that I would miss my connecting flight, which, to make things worse, was purchased separately. I probably broke some records at Heathrow Airport as I managed to make it from the arrival gate in Terminal 3 to the Terminal 2 departure gate in only 32 minutes, which included a bus ride between terminals and going through security. I made it with about 10 minutes to spare. I checked and I was told that my suitcase made it, too.

I have to say, while I like both Air Canada and British Airways, their service doesn’t even come close to the quality of service I enjoyed on Emirates or Etihad. And I am not just referring to legroom or the age of the aircraft (the Emirates flight to Budapest was a really aged A330 and the seats, while a great deal more comfortable than these British Airways seats, were nonetheless a little cramped) but also the attentiveness of the staff on board.

Still, the flight was pleasant (except for some rather severe turbulence near the southern trip of Greenland), and some eight hours later, I was back in sunny snowy Ottawa. The land of deep freeze, where the Rideau Canal is breaking all kinds of records, having been open for well over 50 consecutive days already.

 Posted by at 9:06 am
Mar 042015

I am back from another round of globe-trotting. I spent a week in the UAE, in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, followed by a very brief detour to Budapest to visit my parents.

On arrival to Dubai, we landed nearly an hour late. The reason: a massive sandstorm, which still blanketed the city the next day. Sandstorms can be just as scary and dangerous as snowstorms here in Ottawa: they can reduce visibility to near zero, and the sand can cover roadways in no time. In fact, sand is worse than snow in one respect: it does not melt away.

I was taken to Abu Dhabi by car and during that trip, I saw the rarest of desert wonders: rain.

I was unable to book a room in the hotel of my choice in Abu Dhabi, as most hotels were full due to some defense exhibition. I did, however, find not a room, but a whole apartment at a very modest price in downtown Abu Dhabi, in a brand new apartment hotel called Bin Majid Hotel Apartments (second building from the left):

I had a one bedroom apartment, fully equipped, with a beautiful view of the sea:

Around the hotel, I befriended several cats. OK, maybe befriended is too strong a term, but one of them was certainly friendly for a while. It was a mostly white cat with a tabby tail; young, probably, but also rather small and skinny. When I saw this cat for the second time and let her (?) sniff my fingers, she would not stop following me. She rubbed against my leg, dropped on her side onto my shoes, and even when I picked her up and placed her back on a safe sidewalk, she continued to come after me. Only after I picked her up and put her onto a stone ledge did she take offense: she jumped off the ledge and disappeared under a parked car. I hope I did not offend her too deeply. I have not seen her afterwards. However, on my last morning in Abu Dhabi, I went looking for her and found instead another, equally tiny and skinny male cat: obviously an adult male, it was a tabby with a heavy limp and only one functioning eye. I felt heartbroken for these cats, although I have been assured that in the UAE, cats are generally not treated badly.

As always, the food in the UAE was both tasty and spectacular. One evening, a colleague took me to a restaurant recently opened by one of his friends. Here, we were treated with a spectacular feast:

Yum! My only regret is that I couldn’t eat it all. (Actually that’s not true: my other regret is that I came back heavier than I left, which is most unfortunate but not at all unusual when visiting the UAE.)

Then all too soon, it was time to leave. I boarded a direct flight from Dubai to Budapest, a recently introduced route by Emirates Airlines. After take-off, I enjoyed a spectacular view of downtown Dubai, dominated by the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa, from my airplane window. Sadly, my attempts to take a picture were not very successful.

And just like that, this part of my journey under the desert sun, a few very busy workdays in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, was over.

 Posted by at 8:29 am